Not in Nashville: Lessons From A Failed Transit Referendum

Ryan OrendorfBlog, MobilityLeave a Comment

City residents bemoan long commutes in gridlocked traffic and generally favor public transit options. Public transportation confers numerous benefits – lower commuting costs, less time spent in traffic and cleaner air. Then why did Nashville voters soundly reject a referendum to expand public transit for the city? And what does this mean for other emerging and growing cities across the country?

Nashville is an attractive place to live because of job growth and a relatively lower cost-of-living, as compared to larger cities. However, Music City has had historical problems with traffic and the surge in population has made matters worse. The metro area is in the top 10% of all U.S. cities with the worst traffic and commuters spent an average of 33 hours in peak congestion, according to Inrix’s traffic research report.

While Nashvillians are united in their dislike of slow commutes, a recent transit referendum fell flat. Had the initiative passed, Nashville’s metropolitan area would have gained miles of light rails, new and improved bus service and infrastructure upgrades. The plan was hotly debated and voters defeated the referendum by 2-to-1 this past May. Here are some lessons from the failed vote for the future of public transit in Nashville and other cities:

Convey value with a clear message. 

Public transportation advocates were unable to mount a concise and compelling campaign on the value of public transit. Despite spending more on TV ads, transit proponents didn’t focus on a clear message. Instead, they talked about the myriad benefits of public transit and the thousands of new jobs the work would create. Talking about benefits in various messaging actually diluted the argument and opened the debate to even more rebuttals and doubts. In contrast, opponents honed in on the contentious issue of raising the sales tax to levels among the highest in the nation. In the end, Nashville residents weren’t convinced the ambitious transit plan would be worth the money.

Imagine a future others will value.

Metropolitan transit authorities know that infrastructure projects involve sacrifice and patience for cities and their commuters. But there is supposed to be great reward at the end. In the case of Nashville, voters questioned whether the added light rail and bus lines would change anything on the roads. Some voiced fears that there would be low ridership and the metro area would be still have terrible traffic and a high cost burden.

Enough people need to live or work along transit corridors to justify the expense. The mayor tried to assure voters that Nashville is a growing city that will have ample demand for public transit. Yet, Nashville is a sprawling metropolitan area and data suggested that light rail wasn’t a perfect fit. Nashville didn’t quite hit Federal Transit Authority standards on the minimum population density to make light rail work. Those figures were publicized in the local news and raised doubts in the public’s mind. But with the city’s growth, especially with jobs, public transit might have worked. However, voters didn’t imagine a better future with the transit plan.

Convey a positive return on investment. 

Nashville’s plan would have cost $5.2 billion dollars, an amount which was hard for residents to comprehend. To break it down, the 26 miles of light rail would have cost about $120 million per mile. To some, the return on investment was not obvious and the high price tag remained in people’s minds.

One controversial element of the proposal was to increase city sales tax to pay for it. Tennessee pays the second highest rate of combined state and local sales tax in the nation. Right now, combined taxes are 9.25% and the transit financial plan proposed to raise the city sales tax by 1%. That tax burden of 10.25% would put Nashville in a tie for paying the highest sales taxes along with Chicago, Illinois and Long Beach, California. The tax hike was unpopular with voters who couldn’t see the value of the transit plan as worth the tax.

 Learn from successes elsewhere.

On the surface, Nashville’s voters seemed to reject public transit, but that’s not the case. Instead, many voters, including transit experts, believed the proposal had too many flaws. Public transportation referenda have won in many other cities. Indianapolis voted for rapid transit bus lines despite the fact that income taxes were partially footing the bill. Seattle, Denver and Boston also have innovative transit initiatives underway.

Further, there are several smaller cities (including Bloomington, Indiana; Champaign, Illinois; Ithaca, New York; and Baltimore, Maryland) with excellent public transportation systems used by a relatively large proportion of residents (5% to 10%).

As long as transit authorities convey a clear message, imagine a future others will value, and convey a positive return on investment, cities have a chance to implement projects that solve tough traffic issues and improve public transit options.

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